New York Music Daily

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Jason Yeager Reinvents Pan-American Classics as Protest Jazz on His Searingly Relevant New Album

Pianist Jason Yeager couldn’t have timed the release of his latest album New Songs of Resistance – streaming at Bandcamp – any better. With Bolivian President Evo Morales driven from office by a right-wing coup and Nicaragua’s Sandinistas under increasing fire from corporate-aligned fascists, Yeager’s mix of original protest jazz and classic nuevas canciones from 1970s Latin America are more relevant than ever. He’s playing the album release show on Dec 19 at 8:30 PM at the Cell Theatre; cover is $15.

The album’s most stunning track is Yeager’s grimly modal, savagely kinetic setting of Somos Cinco Mil, the final poem written by iconic songwriter Victor Jara in the Santiago stadium in the hours before he and thousands of other members of the Chilean intelligentsia were murdered by Augusto Pinochet’s death squad following the 1973 CIA-sponsored coup. Vocalist Erini sings this defiant but eerily prophetic anthem with a plaintive calm against cellist Naseem Alatrash’s slashing, Egyptian-tinged accents and the bandleader’s crushing chords.

The group open the album with an elegantly pulsing take of Violeta Parra’s Gracias a la Vida, Erini’s expressive delivery over Matthew Stubbs’ clarinet and bass clarinet, Cosimo Boni’s trumpet, Milena Casado’s flugelhorn, Yeager’s spare piano and the understated rhythm section of bassist Fernando Huergo and drummer Mark Walker.

Farayi Malek delivers Yeager’s cynical broadside The Facts over a sardonically ominous pseudo-march – a frequent and potently effective trope here – bringing to mind the fiery intensity of Todd Marcus‘ similarly political work, especially when the bass clarinet kicks in. Yeager introduces another Jara song, Aqui Me Quedo with a pensively unsettled solo intro, Erini’s vocals rising defiantly over  sweeping orchestration.

Mother Earth, a Yeager original, has strong Monk echoes along with more suspiciously straightforward strutting and,a long, insistent trumpet crescendo. Singer Farayu Malek’s matter-of-fact recitation of Yeager’s scathing, spot-on lyrics to In Search of Truth addresses a host of problems – eco-apocalypse, the corporate-driven race toward slavery and dehumanization – over an increasingly agitated backdrop. Then Yeager opens Leon Geico’s Cinco Siglos Igual with a brooding, Rachmaninovian noir interlude, Erini’s expressive, ripely wounded vocals bringing to mind Camila Meza, Casado picking up the pace against the band’s lustre.

The rest of the record includes three originals and a Brazilian song. Protest, a menacing, stabbing little march, leads into the album’s creepiest, most carnivalesque number, Reckoning: with a tune and a Malek vocal this coldly dismissive, who says revenge songs need lyrics? Yeager’s final instrumental interlude follows, macabre and suspenseful. The album ends on an upbeat note with a loose-limbed take of Brazilian songwriter Chico Buarque’s Apesar de Voce, sung with dusky resovle by Mirella Costa. Yeager’s relentless, usually understated intensity, starkly evocative compositions and imaginative reworking of a smartly assembled mix of classic songs make this one of the best albums of 2019 in any style of music.

An Embarrassment of Riches from Kenny Barron on Record and at the Vanguard This Month

Tis the season when venues show their true colors – or try to, anyway. There’s the Lower East Side shed that’s fallen on hard times and has been booked by that odious corporate empire for the past year, trying to relive some former glories with an overpriced residency by a legendary, noisy 90s band. Then there’s that West Village flagship of a global chain of jazz joints, who’ve brought in the trumpeter king of elevator jazz. There are going to even more Jersey license plates than usual this month in the vicinity of West Third Street.

On a more optimistic note, the Village Vanguard has booked timelessly mighty piano sage Kenny Barron for a long stand beginning this Dec 17, where he’s playing at 8:30 and around 11 through the 22nd with a quintet featuring the perennially adrenalizing Johnathan Blake on drums. Then Barron’s going to strip it down to a trio with bassist Buster Wiliams and drummer Tain Watts for the rest of the dates, which run through the 29th.

Barron’s latest record is The Art of the Piano Duo (streaming at Spotify), a lavish archival triple live album recorded with the late, greatly missed Mulgrew Miller on three dates spread over about a ten-year span. This isn’t piano four hands: it’s two of the great purists of the past several decades, locked in on separate pianos that often sound like one. Trying to figure out who’s who can be next to impossible until you determine who’s in which channel (it differs from record to record). In deference to his fleet-fingered friend, Barron’s legendary lefthand usually seems a little lighter than usual. Eventually, Miller’s fondness for gospel reveals itself, along with Barron’s occasional detour toward tropical sounds: in general, he’s the more adventurous one here. The first album dates from 2005, in Marciac, France; the second and third are Swiss shows, from Zurich on May 12, 2001 and Geneva just over a decade later, respectively.

The material is pretty much all midtempo ballads, plus an unexpectedly careening Yardbird Suite and a triumphantly saloonish Blue Monk. The first side opens with Stars Fell on Alabama, where the two pianists’ phrasing is sometimes so swingingly synced that it’s surreal; other times, there’s a little shadowing going on, the echo creating a quasi Fender Rhodes effect. Throughout their collaboration, the two trade expansive solos, each comping chords and/or walking the bass for the other as the tradition calls for it. Nobody’s in a hurry: they can stick with a tune for fifteen minutes or more. This isn’t a record for people with short attention spans.

Each artist also contributes solo pieces. Miller’s take of I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good, from the Zurich date, turns out to be a stately ballad with a little playful leapfrogging. Barron’s solo version of Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most, from the Geneva set, contrasts saturnine, vampy lustre with jaunty ornamentation: it’s anything but sad. Likewise, his Song for Abdullah- a Abdullah Ibrahim shout-out – balances a precise, scampering approach with steady gravitas. The two close the final disc with a colorfully clustering version of Joy Spring, aptly capsulzing how everybody seemed to be feeling on that May night early in a decade that’s about to close. And none too soon: looks like we’ll have an impeachment to celebrate as the Twenties come roaring in.

Haunting Gravitas and Playful Beats with the Karuna Trio at Lincoln Center

This past evening at Lincoln Center, the Karuna Trio shifted between nocturnes and space jams. The nocturnes were intense and brooding, sometimes bordering on the macabre; the space jams ranged from starry effervescence to deep-nebula murk. Considering how many Euro-tourists pass through Jazz at Lincoln Center on any given night, free jazz like this would go over well at a space that so rarely programs it.

But it was great to see the trio of percussionist Adam Rudolph, drummer Hamid Drake and pianist Alexis Marcelo spinning all those sounds out of thin air, a couple of blocks to the north. Creative music tends to be all or nothing: when it’s good, there’s really nothing better. But free jazz also attracts some of the most annoyingly self-indulgent, pretentious players around. You know the type: they only play free jazz because if, perish the thought, they might actually have to say something meaningful, or acknowlege, let alone converse with their bandmates, that might limit their precious self-expression. So watching these three pros teaming up to build a majestic series of waves, and then ride them, was redemptive to say the least. Not to mention a lot of fun.

This was a leisurely, thoughtful performance, the three players leaving plenty of space for each other to think out where they’d go next, or respond to an idea that someone had thrown into the mix, and that empowered the audience just as much. Which made sense, considering Drake’s opening remarks that the spectators are just as integral to a concert as the musicians.

Marcelo played both the role of anchor and outlier. Opening with flickering, light-dappled phrases, then shifting to ominously resonant, vampy chromatic themes often enhanced by or echoing from a synthesizer perched above the keys, he was the dark knight of this soul. Other times, it was clear that the two drummer buds were going to lock in on a long series of subtly interwoven polyrhythms, with Marcelo adding color and texture, and after knocking at the door with one long hammering phrase, finally pulled the two percussionists back out of the sun and into the shadows.

There was also a playful, salsa-tinged interlude initiated by Marcelo; rippling echoes of Satie and the neoromantics; a pause for trinket noisemakers, an unselfconsciously funny one for singing bowls; hints of birdsong and deep-forest wildlife; and a final gnawa-influenced interlude with Rudolph on sintir and Drake on daf frame drum that was beside the point. Anyone in the house who was at this same space a couple of years ago to witness some of Morocco’s great maalems of gnawa music would have recognized that for the ersatz groove that it was. But the depth, and rapture, and generous interplay of the first four-fifths of the show lingered after the trio had left the stage.

Rudolph and his Go Organic Orchestra team up with the Brooklyn Raga Massive to create a monstrous, improvisational forty-person raga orchestra tomorrow night, Dec 13 at 7 PM at CUNY’s Elebash Hall at 365 5th Ave. just north of 34th St.; cover is $25. This year’s final free concert at Lincoln Center’s atrium space on Broadway just north of 62nd St. is on Dec 19 at 7:30 PM with Los Rumberos del Callejón bringing their oldschool salsa dura sound out of the alley. The salsa dance concerts here are insanely popular; showing up a half hour early wouldn’t be a bad idea

Best New York Concert of the Year

The best New York concert of 2019 was Rose Thomas Bannister‘s wedding. In case you think it’s elitist to choose a private event over something everybody in town theoretically could have gone to…you could have been there too if you happened to wander into Union Pool the night of September 29. “You thought you were coming to a wedding!” the protean, psychedelic Great Plains gothic lit-rock songwriter beamed. “I gave you a music festival!”

Super Yamba Band headlined. By that time, plenty of people had come out to the bar, with no idea that two of this era’s most formidable musical minds had just tied the knot. And soon there were plenty of random strangers getting down to slinky Afrobeat in the back room with all the wedding guests.

It’s probably safe to say that Super Yamba’s set was a mashup of their mid-July 2018 show on an old shipping pier by the water on the Upper West Side, and their gig at Barbes this past March. If there’s any band in town worth seeing more than once, it’s these guys. The pier show seemed to be louder and heavier on the horns, the keyboardist doing double duty on both, while the Barbes gig had more dynamics, instruments leaving and then rejoining the mix, Both shows were heavy on the minor-key, sometimes distantly, sometimes closely Ethiopian-tinged jams. Impassioned frontman Leon Ligan-Majek a.k.a. Kaleta did a long stint in Fela’s band toward the end, so he learned from the guy who invented Afrobeat. Cantering, undulating rhythms, sharply sparkly electric piano, looming organ and spicy, emphatic horns and brass filtered through the mix, sometimes for minutes on end, sometimes shifting quickly to a faster tempo or back the other way.

Super Yamba Band’s next gig is at 9 PM on Dec 14 at Bar Chord for the tip jar. For those who can’t make it to deep Brooklyn, they’re playing Symphony Space on Dec 19 at 7:30, where you can get in for $20 if you’re thirty and under.

The rest of the wedding was a mix of searing jams and savagely brilliant tunesmithing. The wildest jam was when Bannister’s dad Tom, came up to the stage and joined 75 Dollar Bill for a hypnotic yet searing duel with guitarist Che Chen. It was as if the freedom fighters in Tinariwen had flown to Scotland for a predawn raid to liberate a Trump property.

Bannister has never sung more powerfully, or with more triumphant intensity. Which made sense in that marrying guitar polymath Bob Bannister was the crowning stroke in a career that began when she escaped from a Christian supremacist environment, driving off in a little car with her secret collection of forbidden secular cassettes. In that context, the sudden, wary martial flurry in the opening number, Ambition, made sense on every possible level: a word of warning, but also a vengeful, martial riff. Whichever motivation you might ascribe to the slowly crescendoing anthem – a portrait of greed, or revenge – it worked.

Working on only two rehearsals, drummer Rob Smith colored the music with his subtle brushwork and cymbals while the groom wove restlessly articulated webs of notes, from saturnine Richard Thompson-esque leads to lingering jangle and clang, austere blues, warmly soulful Beatlesque lines and even a little wry Tex-Mex. When bride and groom calmly matched voices in the stately, understated, Macbeth-inspired Lady M – “Your children will be kings” – there was no mistaking how much of a victory had been snatched from the jaws of defeat.

The rest of the set was a mix of the hypnotic and the ferocious. The Real Penelope, a mashup of Revolver Beatles psychedelia and Britfolk, was wistful yet guardedly optimistic, the future Mrs. Bannister realizing that she’d found the lead guitarist of her dreams. Same Name Blues, which she rarely plays live, had a seethingly sardonic edge, as did the most relevant song of the night, Heaven Is a Wall, a shapeshifting fable about border walls packed with the cynically appropriated Old Testament imagery that she loves to use to drive a point home. And Iowa, with its simple yet eerie Midwestern imagery and coda that fell away abruptly at the end, seemed to synopsize her flight from repression, knowing that there would be possibly apocalyptic consequences, both personally and globally,

After that, most of the band reconvened as PG Six, frontman/guitarist Pat Gubler a steely, dapperly suited presence out front. Debby Schwartz, fresh off a sizzling set with the Bannisters, was even more of a whirlwind, firing off incisive chords, raga riffs working around an open string and sinuous, soaring leads that gave the band a third lead player. Gubler’s resonant, darkly opaque chords and tersely circling lines rang out as Bannister’s leads slashed and wailed around them, sometimes bringing to mind Jerry Garcia in “on” mode, at other times veering closer to unhinged Sonic Youth territory. His bride eventually came up to sing harmonies, one of the great Brooklyn musical power couples reveling in making it official.

Lush, Low-Register Rainy-Day Sonics from One-Woman Orchestra Maya Beiser

What does the famous Adagio from Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata sound like on a cello? Lush, and trippy, and as gothic as gothic gets. That’s how cellist Maya Beiser plays it, overdubbing herself into a broodingly lustrous one-woman string orchestra, with some magical overtones trailing toward the end. And that’s not even the most memorable track on her allusively apocalyptic latest album delugEON, streaming at Spotify.

Beiser’s choice of material is as diversely interesting as usual, with more of a loopmusic influence than ever. The light electronic touches are unobtrusive, mostly limited to sustain effects and subtle rhythmic loops. The album’s centerpiece is Slow Seasons, a stunningly saturnine, somewhat abridged reinvention of the iconic Vivaldi suite, completely transformed by transpositions to the lower registers and tempos at halfspeed or less. She opens with the slow, expressive Autumn, followed by the shivery, rather chilly Summer. By contrast, Spring can’t seem to extricate itself from winter’s icy grip. Winter itself, a delicate canon pulsing along with echoey pizzicato, seems balmy by comparison.

Lkewise, Water is a stripped-down, moodily atmospheric take on a glacially paced, famously apocalyptic Messiaen theme, Beiser’s overdubs imbued with such a cantabile quality that it’s practically a chorale. Then she raises the energy somewhat with a windswept, tectonically shifting take of Monteverdi’s Ah Dolente Partita

Beiser’s Stabat Mater has a dirgey, minimalist rusticity consistent with its medieval origins. The album ends with its most epic yet minimalistically baroque track, Purcell’s When I Am Laid in Earth, its aching rises and falls grounded in Beiser’s most somber textures here. Rainy-day music at the end of the decade doesn’t get much better than this.

Revisiting a Searing, Classic Blues Record by JD Allen

You don’t typically expect a blues album to be tenor sax, bass and drums. Nor, in 2016, would anyone have expected JD Allen, this era’s most individualistic titan of the jazz tenor, to make a blues record. Yet he did – and his Americana album (streaming at Spotify) remains one of his two or three best releases, right up there with 2008’s game-changing I Am I Am, which signaled that Allen would go on a roll that he remains on to this day. He’s playing Smalls tonight, Dec 9 at 10:30 PM, leading a quartet: it’s rainy, it’s professional night and an ideal circumstance to catch his relentless, restless modal power. Cover is $25. If you feel like making a night of it, drummer Dan Pugach‘s imaginatively arranged nonet open the evening at 7:30.

Allen opens the album with the slowly ambling Tell the Truth Shame the Devil, playing sparely, spaciously, with a restrained optimism, matched by drummer Rudy Royston’s judicious, minimalist counteraccents and bassist Gregg August’s similarly spare, walking lines and occasional devious harmony. In the album liner notes, Allen asserts with his usual acerbity that traditional African-American blues is hardly limited to the blues scale and the hallowed 1-4-5 progression, although in this cas that’s mostly what this tune is about, the bandleader waiting until the last verse before really pushing the edges.

The first of the album’s two covers, the classic Another Man Done Gone has August bowing stern, stygian responses to Allen’s brooding, characteristically modally-tinged lines as Royston prowls and tumbles: it perfectly capsulizes the interplay this band enjoyed over the course of a long run that lasted more than a decade. Likewise, August’s anguished, cello-like phrasing captures the horror of the song’s narrative, an innocent man kidnapped into the prison-industrial complex.

Allen solos judiciously and somberly over August’s terse, incisive vamp and Royston’s similarly restrained, tumbling drums throughout the third track, Cotton, up to a catchy, anthemic turnaround and finally a lusciously crescendoing coda fueled by Royston. August’s simmering chords drive an ominous Middle Eastern-flavored vamp in Sugar Free to a suspiciously blithe swing and a jaunty, New Orleans-spiced bass solo until Allen brings it all back home.

Bigger Thomas is one of those wickedly incisive, catchy “jukebox jazz” tunes that Allen started firing off one after another about a dozen years ago: as it shuffles along, he brings in the gritty modalities again. Opening with August’s slow, spacious six-chord theme, the album’s title track could be Jimi Hendrix without the distortion and the noisy effects, maybe a psychedelic interlude from Axis: Bold As Love.

Over a boomy, loose-limbed shuffle groove, Allen teases that he might leave the brooding passing tones of Lightnin’ behind, but he doesn’t. There’s a little Howlin’ Wolf in there along with some venomously funny interplay with the rhythm section. The album’s second cover, Bill McHenry’s If You’re Lonely, Then You’re Not Alone, gets a spacious, wistful treatment: beyond August’s brilliantly distilled bassline, most people would be hard-pressed to call this blues. The trio close with Lillie Mae Jones, an upbeat variation on a favorite, enigmatic modal riff that Allen uses a lot: imagine if Booker T. Jones’ axe was sax instead of organ.

Whether you consider this blues or jazz, this defiantly unsettled, frequently angry salute to a treasured but misunderstood American tradition remains one of the best albums of the decade. Although Allen has recently moved on to a new trio, and some surprisingly more trad gigs as a sideman with trumpeter Jeremy Pelt and other big names, this more than any other recent release captures him at his dark, majestic best.

A Late-Inning Comeback by Janglerock Icons Son of Skooshny

It’s been awhile since Mark Breyer – who could be called the Elvis Costello of janglerock – has made an appearance on this page. It’s good to see him back in action, still releasing one brilliantly constructed single after another. His latest two, under the Son of Skooshny name (Skooshny being his iconic jangle/powerpop outfit dating back to the 70s) are up at Bandcamp.

The first tune, Cold has a majestic sway in the same vein as the Church, Steve Refling’s layers of acoustic and electric guitars building a rich sonic mesh over a steady backbeat. It’s a good companion piece to the Jayhawks classic Trouble, debating whether it’s better to settle for mediocrity or just be alone. Breyer’s metaphors are as withering as usual, a chronicle of “two old souls who can’t tolerate the cold.” The bridge is the best part:

It’s hard to stay in the moment
Out there on the trail
When the desert dawn contracts
Will the mountain lion attack
Will the rattlesnake recoil and flail

Staying In is one of the alltime great baseball songs ever written, but that’s just part of the picture. Wait til you get to the end, where Breyer puts everything in perspective, at his haunting, unflinching best. Getting there is a ride that brings to mind the 2016 World Series (Breyer’s beloved Cleveland Indians went down ignomimously to the typically cellar-dwelling Chicago Cubs).

The starter only carries you so far
The setup gets you close but no cigar
The closer must have nerves of steel
To wrap it up and seal the deal
Here comes a heartbreak we all feel
The leadoff walk and then the steal
The liner into centerfield
Blown save
Be brave

Watch for this on the best songs of 2019 page at the end of the decade, i.e. in a couple of weeks.

Getting Lost with Gamelan Kusuma Laras at Roulette

Where do you go when over the past four decades, you’ve staged two thousand shows by artists from all over the world, all over New York? Robert Browning ended up at the most easily accessible venue in Brooklyn: Roulette. All trains lead to Atlantic Avenue, more or less; the space is two blocks away, maybe less depending on your exit.

Last month’s performance was an impassioned, intense concert by a legendary Iraqi singer backed by this hemisphere’s only traditional Iraqi classical maqam ensemble (there will be other potentially transcendent Middle Eastern bands here next year). This past evening’s show was completely different: New York’s own traditional Javanese-style bell orchestra, Gamelan Kusuma Laras building hypnotically starry ambience for the audience to get lost in. It wasn’t clear when the show started – were the two brief introductory numbers just a warmup, everybody running the riffs to make sure they were in tune? – nor was it particularly clear when it ended. But in between, time stood still.

Ironically, as the once-ubiquitous gamelan and shadow puppet spectacles in Indonesia seldom take place these days outside of weddings and other special occasions, gamelans have become a meme on college campuses across the US. I.M. Harjito is one of the main reasons why. If an American-based gamelan are any good, it’s likely that the now Connecticut-based Harjito trained them. Seated amid the group’s bells, gongs and gender xylophones, he began the show playing starkly keening, acerbic phrases on the rebab fiddle, then switched between a couple of double-barreled drums. Interestingly, the the smaller of the got the boomiest sounds.

In front of the ensemble, guest singer Heni Savitri was spellbinding, calmly and methodically working very subtle variations on riffs in a scale that wasn’t quite whole notes and wasn’t quite pentatonic either. With her austere, bitingly resonant, otherworldly voice, she sometimes exchanged brief phrases with either the rebab, or one of the flutes played by a member of the choir seated to her left. For all the innumerable variations, the music was incredibly catchy: several blues-tinged riffs, rising from and then returning to a central note, lingered long after the show.

Gamelans have enough bells to make Edgar Allan Poe jealous, and this group are no exception. Surrounded by banks of bright, shiny brass bonang and smaller kenong bells, the men and women in charge built a glacially shifting interweave of spare polyrhythms, rippling and pinging and glimmering into the night. Behind them, two of the group’s percussionists accented turnarounds, sudden tempo shifts and transitions with a big rack of gongs and a bass drum. Meanwhile, the higher-pitched tones of the genders glistened and clinked, adding an extra layer of celestial gleam.

Gamelan lyrics typically draw on ancient Javanese mythology; in addition, Harjito had come up with a couple of originals encouraging the musicians to reach greater heights. But the night was best appreciated as a cohesive whole, a chance to go completely down the rabbit hole that Claude Debussy discovered in 1889 at the Paris Exposition, where he decided that gamelan music was the future – and shifted the paradigm for music everywhere outside of Indonesia.

The next concert staged at Roulette by Robert Browning Associates is a flamenco festival on March 28 of next year: details are still being finalized.

A Harrowing, Inspiring, Gruesomely Exquisite Memoir from Marianne Dissard

Singer Marianne Dissard‘s memoir Not Me is just like her lyrics: witheringly insightful, harrowingly direct, disarmingly self-aware and stylistically exquisite. That her story’s scathingly funny asides and spot-on musical and social commentary are just as gripping as the grim central narrative reaffirms the argument that great songwriters are also great prose writers.

Dissard’s musical career was on many levels a very unlikely success story. A filmmaker by training, living in Tucson with her musician husband, the French expatriate didn’t get her start as a performer until the zeros, in the wake of a bitter divorce. By then, she was already in her thirties. Yet she hit the ground running, hard, possibly out of revenge. From the beginning, her tunesmithing had a stunning level of craft: part cabaret, part desert rock and, as you would expect from a French girl who grew up in the 80s, part new wave. And her lyrics were top-tier, packed with puns, clever wordplay, historical and literary references. Although most of them are in French, she also writes competently in German. And her command of English surpasses 99% of Americans writing in their native tongue.

In a decade where the music industry lost 90% of its income and sales of digital music plummeted to zero, Dissard did what every musician needed to do to maintain a career: she toured, relentlessly. And recorded a consistently brilliant series of albums, a handful of them made on the fly in cities around the world on the rare off-day. She got great press and has an adoring fan base, neither of which she mentions in this humble and humbling story. In 2012, in many ways, she looked like she was on top of the world.

Then she crashed.

Looking back, she reflects, bandmates knew something was wrong, but they chalked it up to the wear and tear of the road. The truth is that Dissard, a lithely muscular, pixieish woman, had been a bulimic for twenty years, and it had finally caught up with her.

In context, many of her lyrics ought to be a dead giveaway. The most obvious one, which she quotes in the book, is from the song Mouton Bercail, with its images of “drooling blood.” Considering what she’d been going through at the time, one of her most shattering songs, Am Letzen, makes more sense than ever. Dissard’s muted, half-whispered portrait of complete emotional depletion on the New Years Eve from hell reaches even greater depths of despondency.

She acknowledges how lucky she was to survive – and also how unlikely it was that she managed to keep a career going, as a singer, of all things. Her teeth suffered, but somehow her vocal cords escaped any permanent damage, although she alludes to the occasional problematic show: “Ah, but my voice? Glazed by juices more acrid than turned wine, what sounds would this throat make, words boiled unintelligible from raspy syllables, a wheezing flow of tepid weakness disguised as demure coquetry. It doesn’t fucking matter. You sing in French. They’re Americans. Make sounds, any sounds. It all sounds the same, exotic and sexy, Parisian. Still, wouldn’t someone notice you’d gone awry? They know you, some of them, and some of it. And the photos? You sure don’t look like your press shots anymore. You look simply ravaged.”

This is a typical passage. Dissard has an extraordinary eye for detail and a laserlike sense of the mot juste, whether recounting the gory blow-by-blow of a night of purging where she thought she’d gone blind, or more hopeful days after she’d put the touring on hold to pursue….a degree in teaching yoga.

Which ultimately saved her. She may have tormented her digestive tract for a couple of decades, but she’d also maintained a rigorous, daily yoga practice. And when not bingeing on forbidden treats (the list will shock you), she ate well, drank little if at all, didn’t smoke or do drugs, enjoyed a close relationship with a beloved cat and remained active, perhaps hyperactive. The impetuosity and steely self-determination that drove her career may have confounded some of the people who knew her, but those qualities also kept her alive in every sense of the word.

Tellingly, Dissard’s first encounter with eating disorders came after her parents moved her to America Discovering the calorific, processed American diet – and no doubt wanting to fit in with the other kids – the svelte, petite teenager suddenly had weight issues. Then became anorexic, and after that summer was over – with only a pointed, mostly wordless encounter with her mother about it – the forty pounds she’d lost from not eating returned with a vengeance. She would discover bulimia and the thrill of guilt-free food indulgence a little later.

Ultimately, bulimia is all about control, mind over matter: giving in to the most basic desire for nourishment, then pulling the plug right at the moment where it could be metabolized. Dissard had it down to a science and doesn’t spare any ugly bits. Through sheer force of will, finally having hit rock bottom, she was able to sublimate the need for control and channel that resolve in life-affirming directions.

There are innumerable messages implicit in this story. That a French woman – you know the cliche, they’re all beautiful because they never eat between meals – could practically kill herself with bulimia speaks to how prevalent, and underreported, it is. That such a strong-willed, seemingly fearless artist could be leveled by the perception that others might find her unattractive is another genuine shock, and a cautionary tale. As usual, Dissard lets the details fill in the blanks: there’s no self-help instruction manual here.

And those details offer a delicious contrast against a haunted backdrop. Dissard’s powers of perception are formidable, whether offhandedly commenting on how an audience perceives an artist, to her contempt (a recurrent emotion in her songwriting, less so here) for digital audio: “I can’t stand these joints with tiny, lousy ceiling speakers that filter out prefab songs to their crash cymbals and hi-hat hits, a glass-fiber sort of sound, deathbed-gasping mp3s.”

Her account of yoga training, and what she seems to have considered surprising success at it, is just as vivid, particularly for non-yoginis. Most poignantly, it’s a weight gain after putting an end to the binge-and-purge cycle that brings her closer to her students, where a loss of flexibility suddenly helps her relate to their muscle fatigue and resistance to difficult poses. Just like her songs, the story’s changing milieux – from Tucson, to Paris, to Italy and back – are ablaze with color, sparkling with imagery.

Dissard considers herself a recovering addict, and that the pain had come in many ways to define her (just listen to a couple of her songs and you’ll figure that out fast). Ultimately, this is a story of transcendence, with what appears to be a happy ending. It will keep you up all night and then make you dream about it. That could be a nightmare, but it could also be immensely inspirational. Dissard, as usual, doesn’t come out and say that explicitly, testament to her prowess as a wordsmith. This book is reason to look forward to whatever narrative might be her next: a film, a novel, or if we’re lucky, maybe even a 2020 concert tour.

An Exhilirating, Revelatory Carnegie Hall Debut by the Aizuri Quartet

In their Carnegie Hall debut last night, the Aizuri Quartet played an exhilarating, “wonderfully quirky” program, as violinist Miho Saegusa grinningly characterized a lively, animatedly conversational performance of Haydn’s String Quartet in B minor, Op. 64, no. 2. And that wasn’t the highlight of the night. The suite of Komitas’ Armenian folk songs, via a colorful Sergei Aslamazian arrangement, were often gorgeously poignant. And Paul Wiancko‘s 2016 triptych Lift, an “ode to joy,” as violist Ayane Kozasa put it, was a thrilling, ceaslessly bustling, distinctly urban choice of coda. Wiancko is a cellist by trade: his work for strings takes maximum advantage of all those instruments can offer.

The theme of the night was “locally sourced” music inspired by the composers’ home turf that also resonated with the group members. Cellist Karen Ouzounian explained that the night’s five dances collected by Komitas – a Near Eastern musical polymath and proto Alan Lomax– were “a musical link for a lot of families in the diaspora to a distant home…a tiny window into Armenia.” Growing up in Toronto, she’d developed a passion for the repertoire, something the group clearly share.

The wistfully waltzing song without words they opened with set the bar almost impossibly high for the rest of the night, lit up with Saegusa’s sparkling pizzicato. They’d revisit that plaintiveness with the third piece, a distantly Viennese-tinged waltz, Kozasa adding aching intensity with a solo toward the end. In between, a kinetic, celebratory number featured forceful call-and-response and a nimble pizzicato bassline from Ouzounian. The acerbic fourth tune, with its uneasy, Iranian-tinged modalities and stormy gusts, morphed into a jauntier waltz that set the stage for a bounciy vamping conclusion.

In the Haydn, violinist Emma Frucht got to indulge in some unusual single-string voicings that the composer had written for a string-playing buddy. The group reveled in the occasional puckish, peek-a-boo moment and coy instants of anticipation: they’d really taken the quartet apart to find all the best jokes. Dynamics were very hushed in the quietest passages, so that when the group really dug into the Romany-inspired minor-key phrases that Haydn would inevitably smooth out, the effect was all the more striking. Deft handoffs of neatly interwoven counterpoint between the instruments became more animated as the music grew more straightforwardly triumphant, to a playful coda.

Wiancko’s triptych had a cinematic restlessness, a hive of activity built around several intriguing thematic variations. The ensemble kicked it off memorably with a shiver of harmonics, quickly hitting a bustle that brought to mind Charles Mingus’ mid-50s work. Seemingly tongue-in-cheek rounds of pizzicato gave way to circular, Philip Glass-ine phrasing and some of the night’s most unselfconsciously lustrous harmonies between the violins. As the piece went on, lively swoops and dives along with a long series of short, colorful solo spots for each of the instruments mingled with hazy atmospherics, Debussy-esque echoes of ragtime and a return to a frenetic cityscape to tie up any possible loose end. What appeared to be a sold-out crowd exploded with a series of standing ovations.

The Aizuri Quartet’s next New York gig is Dec 15 at 11 AM at Subculture, playing a program TBA; cover is $20, which includes coffee and breakfast snacks. Concert Artists Guild, who sponsored this show, also have a characteristically innovative series of performances from future stars of the serious instrumental music world. Their next one is Feb 11, 2020 at 7:30 PM back at Weill Hall at Carnegie Hall, with pianist Yi-Nuo Wang playing works by Rachmaninoff, Bartok, Brahms, Chen-yi Lee and Liszt; tix are $30.